If you think coriander and capers shouldn’t be anywhere near a dessert, think again. Maira Yeo, Asia’s Best Pastry Chef 2022 (part of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards programme), is known for her innovative desserts that incorporate such non-traditional ingredients, along with others.
Take the 30-year-old’s signature Celtuce, Yuzu, Green Chilli, And Yoghurt at Sri Lankan-Australian restaurant Cloudstreet, where she’s worked for 1.5 years. She turns the humble celtuce (known locally as wosun) — a thick, knobby stem lettuce topped with a frowsy head of crisp leaves — into a refreshing sorbet studded with confit celtuce cubes that she garnishes with green chilli and coriander cress cream before dressing it tableside with lettuce juice and drops of vanilla oil she made herself. The result is a disc of jade green painted with dark green slashes of pure edible art.
“Nothing’s wrong with things that are ugly-delicious,” says Yeo. “Our goal at Cloudstreet is to create things that look good, as well as taste good.”
Yeo was born to chase flavour. At age 6, she began helping her Cantonese-Teochew family run a mixed-rice hawker stall and soon became her mother’s sous chef, preparing dough and meat for elaborate Chinese New Year feasts.
Then came more professional stints. Yeo spent four years at Meta in New York City and then Aska in Brooklyn, and Patrice Pâtissier in Montreal before her current role at Cloudstreet under Rishi Naleendra. Each of these stops taught her valuable culinary lessons.
“Chef Sun Kim of Meta was the first person to hire me as a pastry chef. He introduced me to chef Rishi,” says the owlish Yeo, who punctuates her serious demeanour with disarming bouts of laughter. “And Aska has this basement pantry where they make their own fermentations and vinegars. It was there that I realised you don’t have to limit yourself. If you want more condiments for your dishes, make them yourself.”
In Montreal, lauded pastry chef Patrice Demers, who recently announced the closure of Patrice Pâtissier, impressed Yeo with his nurturing, collaborative style. She says, “His flavour profiles are so straightforward; you don’t have to think too hard about them. That’s what I want to make too. You know how sometimes you go to a restaurant and you aren’t sure if you like the food or not? You should be able to put food into your mouth and know right away that you like it. Food should taste good.”
Passion, Precision and Air-Conditioning
Yeo laughs as she says, “I’m just like a melting snowman, so pastry, which requires cold temperatures, was my natural choice.”
Jokes aside, the self-starter, who launched a bake sale to raise funds for disadvantaged communities hit by the pandemic, says she also loves the discipline involved.
“There are many who don’t like pastry because it requires precision and measuring everything. It isn’t like cooking savoury where you can just wing it. With pastry, nothing is too unpredictable. However, you can control the outcome if you follow the processes.” She tells us that part of the process has included learning to go with the flow after the pandemic cancelled her work visa and pastry chef position at the two Michelin-starred Norwegian restaurant, Maaemo.
Thankfully, she’s found her tribe at Cloudstreet, where she reigns supreme at the new second-floor dessert lounge over the main dining area.
Desserts Inspired by Asia
At Cloudstreet, Yeo and Naleendra take a creative approach to cross-pollination, creating flavour combinations that cross cultures. “I incorporate my heritage into such dishes as Easter eggs,” says Yeo, referring to the hidden images or messages generally found in video games or movies.
“Our petit fours, for example, use coconut caramel. Typically found in Sri Lanka, it’s very similar in taste and texture to dodol, the thick, sticky, coconut-based confection I enjoyed as a child. As for the celtuce dessert, it features celtuce commonly found in Cantonese stir-fries, as well as Sri Lankan green chillies and yogurt.”
Besides nods to Yeo and Naleendra’s heritage, Cloudstreet’s desserts often feature unexpected savoury accents. An elegant quenelle of celeriac ice cream and pickled guava, for example, gets a flavour boost from fried capers, one of Yeo’s favourite ingredients. The key is to adjust the ratio to get small, delicious bursts of umami brininess. Of course, experimentation inevitably leads to some failures.
“Avocados are a nightmare to work with because they oxidise so quickly and their fat content flavour away from other ingredients,” says Yeo.
And then there are the diners who prefer standard desserts. But Yeo remains undeterred.
“When people come to Cloudstreet, they know they’re going to get atypical food. Mark and Shah (Cloudstreet’s head chef and sous chef, respectively) put a lot of thought into sourcing. They’re now experimenting with oyster adductor muscles, which you don’t usually think of eating. That means I have to step up as well when diners arrive at Cloudstreet’s second floor for dessert.”
The Rise of Female Chefs
While there can only be one Best Pastry Chef for the year, Yeo is in good company. From veterans like Cheryl Koh of Les Amis to rising stars like Waku Ghin-alum Shirlyn Song, female pastry stars in Singapore are not a rarity.
Women also make up 40 percent of Cloudstreet’s kitchen, and Yeo is glad wellness is no longer a dirty word as she recalls a not-so-distant past encounter when a female manager rebuffed her for speaking up about a male chef’s abusive behaviour at work. That’s one more reason why Yeo says resilience is key to anyone trying to survive and thrive in Singapore’s restaurant industry.
“Many young cooks give up because it’s so difficult. It’s long hours, high intensity, high pressure, and you’re on your feet all day. Still, I enjoy the constant push to be better. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Photography: Mun Kong
Makeup: Sha Shamsi using Chanel Beauty and Keune